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Cyde Two

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In a separate conversation, Fatlip, who's currently finishing up a solo project, offers his take: "Our drugs had always been limited to marijuana and mushrooms, so their perception of cocaine was, 'That's the devil.' That was the last straw for them." For the record, he staunchly denies ever messing with crack.

In 1997, the Pharcyde "fired" Fatlip and continued to perform and record as a trio, amassing songs for a third album. While the departure of the group's most bugged-out and animated member required some adjustments, Romye and Imani attribute the five-year wait between LPs to their label. "We kept turning in songs to Delicious Vinyl, and they wouldn't [approve] them," Imani explains. "If they didn't like a song, we'd have to replace it with another song." Some of those discarded songs made their way onto an EP, Chapter One: Testing the Waters, which the group hawked "just to give the fans something to listen to" between albums.

These artist-label "creative differences" were compounded, the two say, by the fact that the label was broke. Making its splash in the late '80s with megahits by Tone Loc and Young MC, the L.A.-based indie carved out a niche as the city's hippest urban boutique label, inking acts like Def Jef and the Brand New Heavies. But by the mid-'90s, gangsta rap's reign had knocked the progressive-minded indie off its perch. Shuffling among distributors, Delicious scored only one isolated hit with Oakland duo the Whoridas. "Basically, we were in New York recording, and the label just told us they didn't have no more money," Imani says with a grin.

Delicious co-founder Mike Ross, who's anticipating his label's comeback in 2001, insists that any holdups were based on quality control rather than lack of dough. "We've had creative differences ever since Fatlip left the group," he says. "They wanted to get much more involved in their own production; I wanted to use more established producers. With all the infighting going on, [the material they turned in] wasn't up to their usual standards, and I held a lot of it back. The group has a certain reputation out there, which I wanted to keep sacred. Since on some level I am the label, I wanted to maintain a certain integrity for the name. I didn't really have the resources, but also I didn't want to risk it on that record."

Somewhere along the way, Tre got fed up with the politics and moved on. He "was always a wanderer," as Romye says, working on side projects like the universally dissed record by Beverly Hills, 90210 actor Brian Austin Green. After departing the Pharcyde in '99, he focused on his live hip-hop/funk band, Legend of Phoenix.

"He figured his job was done," Romye recalls. "I asked him, 'Is there something I did, is there something I can fix? Let's just commit to doing this, get this album out, make it happen, and then we can all do our solo things.' And he was like, 'No, dude, I just gotta do what I gotta do.'" He shakes his head. "I can't take it lightly right now -- like it's all good. I tried to extend [myself] and got turned down."

Eventually, 13 songs were agreed upon for Plain Rap, but owing to what Imani calls label "screw-ups" over sample clearances, two were yanked, including the Buena Vista Social Club-indebted "Jealousy." Delicious has aligned with German-owned Edel America Records, which kicked down the funds necessary to finish and market the now 11-cut disc.

So . . . based on the group's own tepid assessment, you've got to wonder: Does the new album suck?

The manic, cartoonish flows and psychedelic, youthful exuberance of Bizarre Ride are long gone, and you won't find long-term club hits like Labcabin's salsa-flavored "Runnin'." Instead, Plain Rap lives up to its name, offering a set of calm, thoughtful and straightforward head-nodders by three seasoned MCs. (Yes, three: Tre bailed after most of the disc was finalized.) Tre, Romye, J-Swift and Showbiz handled the production duties.

Stream-of-consciousness verbal assaults like "Trust" and "Network" (featuring a cameo by the Roots' Black Thought) showcase the group's wit. "Blaze," which tackles the subject of getting high from a more intellectual standpoint ("We're connoisseurs," notes Imani), illustrates the group's steadfastly offbeat perspective. But songs like "Somethin'" and "Misery," with their wistful lyrics about materialism and loneliness, as well as the slew of meditations on the responsibilities of adulthood, set the disc's tone: mellow, serious, even a little downbeat -- reflecting the mindset of a band that's had "more complications than childbirth."

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David Wollock